BY GENARO C. ARMAS
STATE COLLEGE —
Didn’t get Bill O’Brien a birthday gift? Don’t worry, he won’t mind one bit.
Penn State’s first-year coach is so focused getting his team ready for Saturday’s Big Ten tilt against No. 9 Ohio State that he forgot he was turning 43 on Tuesday.
That is, until his brother sent him a text Tuesday morning. A few of his players followed suit on Twitter.
“I don’t know, I’m not a big birthday guy,” O’Brien said. “My wife will list all the things that I really don’t enjoy– birthdays, weddings, theme parks, the beach.”
There’s no danger of football falling on that list any time soon, not with Penn State (5-2, 3-0) on a five-game winning streak and surging as the unbeaten Buckeyes (8-0, 4-0) visit Happy Valley this weekend.
Harsh NCAA offseason sanctions on Penn State for the school’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal included significant scholarship cuts and a four-year postseason ban. O’Brien and his staff, though, have channeled the players’ emotions over the predicament into an every-second-counts mentality on the field. Now, every game is like a bowl.
And after a 38-14 drubbing last week of Iowa on the road, the news dominating the headlines has to do with what’s happening on the field, not in the courts.
It’s been a while.
“I would definitely say that these guys have earned the right to play in this type of game. They’ve put a lot of time in. They’ve been through a lot,” O’Brien said. “Everything that we’ve asked them to do, they’ve done.”
Especially on offense.
Quarterback Matt McGloin and the uptempo “NASCAR” scheme trampled over the Hawkeyes defense. The no-huddle attack is getting better every week, and now the running game is getting on track, too behind the formidable trio of speedy tailback Bill Belton and fullback-like bruisers Zack Zwinak and Michael Zordich.
Under the late Joe Paterno’s leadership, Penn State relied on the safe-and-steady formula of running the ball and playing for field position. Now, O’Brien is more apt to go for it on fourth down, especially if he’s anywhere near midfield.
It might be time to rewrite the scouting report on the Nittany Lions.
“Penn State is a team that always scraps,” Ohio State safety Christian Bryant said, “always fights to the last whistle.”
The Penn State defense gets better every week, too, behind standout linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, and disruptive defensive tackle Jordan Hill.
Linebacker U. will have its hands full getting ready for Ohio State star quarterback Braxton Miller, who is listed as the starter this week after getting knocked out of last week’s 29-22 victory over Purdue when a defender slammed him to the turf.
Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said Tuesday he would have both Miller and backup Kenny Guiton, who led Ohio State to victory in relief of Miller, ready for Penn State. Miller has a sore neck, Meyer said.
“He’s good to go for practice. There’ll be no contact,” Meyer said. “Our biggest concern is just how sore he is.”
The most pressing concern for Penn State is special teams after allowing a kickoff return for a touchdown last week and a punt return for a score two weeks ago. The punting game has been so-so at best, while kicker Sam Ficken continues to struggle after making one kick but getting another field-goal attempt blocked against the Hawkeyes.
But special teams woes have been overshadowed in the five-game winning streak. A big-game atmosphere has permeated campus for this “White House” Saturday – when the team asks all fans to wear white for the game. The “Nittanyville” tent city outside Beaver Stadium is already filled with 144 tents and 1,200 student campers, according to student organizers.
They sense extra motivation to this year’s Ohio State-Penn State game, too.
“You know (Patriots coach Bill Belichick) told us in New England, ‘You only play once a week,”’ O’Brien said about his former NFL boss. “This year, we only get a chance to lay it on the line 12 times, 12 Saturdays.
“Every game is a big game.”